Published 10 August 2003 News Review 526th article
Power lunch: Winner with Perry, left, and Kleyn at the Electric Brasserie
The Electric Brasserie is very intelligently run. I rang up to check if key staff were the same as when I went there. "Is Shelley Kleyn still the restaurant manager?" I asked. "She's on the line," said the charming lady who answered the phone, "she'll be with you in a minute."
Analyse that. I hadn't even asked to speak to Ms Kleyn. They hadn't asked my name. But the telephone lady had the brain to realise that if someone wished to speak to the restaurant manager they should be put through. Unlike some extremely dopey restaurants - Zaika and the Boxwood Cafe to name but two - where snotty and ridiculous people demand to know your name and what you wish to say to their over-precious restaurant managers before deciding whether they'll allow you to speak to them.
My family comes from Portobello Road, location of the superb Electric Cinema and its accompanying brasserie and posh dining club. My grandfather, whose naturalisation papers were personally signed by Winston Churchill in 1910 when he was at the Home Office, had a menswear shop in Portobello Road. He'd actually been there long before 1910.
Running along the pavement in front of his shop was a splendid Edwardian mosaic reading "Winner's" in lovely script. It stayed for years. Not long ago I decided to buy it. Sadly by then the council had dug it up. Grandad had 13 shops throughout London. One was near the Gainsborough film studios in Shepherd's Bush. When I started directing, my crew often told me they'd bought shirts there.
His Portobello shop was close to the Electric, a cinema even better than mine at home. It has enormous leather seats with padded footstools. Between the seats are little tables and at the back double-bed sofas, so if the film's no good you can either sleep or snog.
I can sleep anywhere. I slept through two hours of drilling by a root canal specialist the other day. Julian Webber couldn't believe it. He said: "Normally we have to give people two injections to get them to sleep like you did."
Next door to the Electric Cinema is the brasserie. It's a big place with a glass front looking onto Portobello Road. I lunched there with my ex-girlfriend, the delightful Vanessa Perry, who graced this column for many years. The owner is Nick Jones, who has many much-talked-about places, including Soho House and the Babington House hotel near Frome in Somerset. He's recently made a great success exporting Soho House to New York. He wasn't there to greet me - he was in New York, which is no excuse - so I was welcomed by Big John, his general manager, real name John Laycock. Also by the aforementioned and very charming restaurant manager, Shelley Kleyn.
The brasserie's open from 8am to 11pm. "On Saturday we do a thousand covers," Shelley explained proudly. Translated into civilian speak, that means they make a fortune. The set two-course lunch was £12, three courses cost pound;15 and there's a very big side menu, everything from steak sandwiches up, down and sideways.
Unfortunately, we started with horrible Hildon water, their only real error. Our first course was "small plates" consisting of duck rillette, crispy squid, saute chorizo, chipolatas with mustard mayonnaise, Ortiz anchovies and shallots, aubergine bialdi, humus and flat breads and snails in garlic.
After that I needed a snooze in the cinema, but being a pig I carried on with grilled lamb chops, peas, mint, bacon salad and buttered Jersey royals. Vanessa had sea bass and liked it. All my stuff was extremely pleasant. The jovial waitress said she used to serve me at Assaggi. That's got unbearably noisy this year. I've had to walk out three times because it was so deafeningly loud.
Shelley said she used to serve me at the River Cafe. They always have pretty waitresses there. She then advised me to have Eton Mess for my pudding, describing it as "the most delicious thing in the whole world. It's strawberries, crushed meringue, cream and ice cream and a little bit of raspberry puree sauce". Vanessa was disappointed with her dessert, she left most of it. "I'm very fussy with my sorbets," she explained. "They're very difficult to do." She's right. Harry's Bar in Venice has fantastic sorbets. And the greatest chocolate cake ever in the history of the solar system.
In my Electric Brasserie notes, transcribed from carefully made contemporaneous tape recordings, I say: "I'm going to have apple crumble." A few lines later it becomes: "I liked my apple strudel." Pathetic, isn't it? I must be demented. Mind you, that's a perfectly reasonable state to be in. It's done me no harm.
I have taken to sending myself a fax to any hotel I am about to visit. It reads: "Please let me know what you think of the hotel - Michael. PS: Does it have a helicopter pad?" The service has improved out of all belief.
Leonard Stern, London
Oh dear! Your correspondent last week who sent her main course back twice has obviously never worked in a restaurant kitchen.
Iain Donnelly, Ely
Upon closer inspection of the photograph on July 27 of the great man with our Michael, it would appear that Tony Blair does seem satisfied having, at last, secured a weapon of mass destruction. Namely our Mr Winner!
Anthony Gilberthorpe, York
At Michael Caines's famous restaurant in the Royal Clarence hotel, Exeter, the meal was wonderful but the chips were soggy and powdery. They would not have been out of place at McDonald's. Not what you'd expect at over £150 for two. Our mixed salad was just leaves, like one of those bags you buy from the supermarket. A waiter pouring your wine and then removing the bottle only works if staff are attentive. Not when you have to ask for a top-up or wander round the restaurant to find your bottle. Breakfast next morning was chaos. It took 20 minutes to get coffee and toast We were delighted to see kippers and haddock on the menu but they'd run out of both. It all took over an hour.
Jane Herbert, Surrey
The St Mawes hotel, Cornwall, only serves breakfast from 9-9.30am because "some of the staff like their beds". The towels were so worn they resembled tissues, paint flaked from the walls and the portable TV had to be moved in a different direction for each channel. The breakfast buffet consisted of Weetabix, muesli and warm cartoned orange juice. My husband ordered eggs and bacon, which came cold and swimming in grease. For one night this pathetic experience cost £110 plus a tip.
Sarah Pask, Worcestershire
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